Who Supports a Feminist Foreign Policy for the United States?

July 21, 2017

(Cross-posted with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Running Numbers blog)

In August 1995, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women and declared: “We are putting our efforts to protect and advance women’s rights where they belong–in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Elsewhere, I have described the subsequent growth of policy activity on behalf of global women’s rights and traced which political actors have been most active in its implementation.

In this post I ask a different set of questions: how strong is popular support for a “feminist foreign policy” that makes women’s rights a central priority? What segments of the population are most supportive?  Is support for global women’s rights correlated with other policy attitudes?

Some answers to these questions can be found in the annual Chicago Council Survey of Americans on foreign policy issues conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the 2016 survey, the Council asked respondents to rate the importance of a number possible foreign policy goals for the United States, including (among others), combating terrorism, maintaining military superiority, limiting global warming, and combating world hunger. Included among these foreign policy goals was promoting the rights of women and girls around the world. (In the analysis to follow I combine this question with a second that has very similar wording and yields almost identical results).

One feature of the results of the survey is that Americans consider most of these goals either very important or somewhat important. For example, 97 percent of respondents consider combating terrorism a very or somewhat important goal, versus 91 percent for maintaining military superiority, 90 percent for combating global hunger, and 83 percent for limiting global warming. A substantial majority –87 percent—considers promoting the rights of women and girls an important or somewhat important foreign goal.

Clearly, most foreign policy goals are considered important to some extent. The more interesting question is which segments of the population say the policy is very important. This seems all the more relevant given news reports that President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate the office that administers global women’s issues. As Congress deliberates on that budget, it is important to know both the overall level of popular support for advancing global gender rights and who is more skeptical.

The graphic below shows the breakout of those who believe that promoting the rights of women and girls is a very important policy goal. There are few surprises. Women, Democrats, and those who intended to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are far more likely to identify global gender issues as “very important.” Black Americans are also very supportive. [Click on image to enlarge]

I also examined what other foreign policy attitudes were related to support for global gender rights. Those who believe that strengthening the United Nations would be an effective way for the US to achieve its goals also support the pursuit of global gender rights. The finding is not surprising because the United Nations has been a crucial forum for advocacy on global gender issues. In addition, scholars have found that opinions of the UN and opinions favoring global justice tend to cluster among citizens who favor a cooperative approach to global affairs or a redistribution of global resources (Gravelle, Reifler, and Scotto 2017).

A second correlation may be a bit more surprising to some readers: support for the pursuit of global women’s rights is also strongest among respondents who are very worried about being the target of gun violence. At first glance, a relationship between worries about gun violence and global gender rights may not seem obvious. Several factors likely explain it. First, fear of gun violence is highly gendered –women are more likely to worry about being a victim of gun violence. Second, women are no doubt aware that women are often the victim of violent crime and violent global conflicts. Securing the rights of women is not just a question of justice –it is a question of personal safety. As Valerie Hudson and her colleagues have put it, the security of women and the reduction of global violence are integrally related (Hudson et al 2012). What may be surprising is that a simple question about gun violence elicits responses that are cosmopolitan in their overtones.


Gravelle, Timothy B., Jason Reifler, and Thomas J. Scotto. 2017. “The Structure of Foreign Policy Attitudes in Transatlantic Perspective: Comparing the   United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany.” European Journal of Political Research, March. doi:10.1111/1475-6765.12197.

Hudson, Valerie M., et. al. (2012). Sex and world peace. New York: Columbia University Press.


Policy Activity in the Office of Global Women’s Issues, US Department of State 1995-2015

June 27, 2016

Richard C. Eichenberg, Tufts University

Elizabeth Robinson (Tufts 2015)

with the assistance of

Lily Hartzell (Tufts 2018)

Lara LoBrutto (Tufts 2017)

First in a series of posts

Update 7/12/2016: codebook now available


In August 1995, President William Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women and declared:  “We are putting our efforts to protect and advance women’s rights where they belong–in the mainstream of American foreign policy.”  In January 2013, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential memorandum on the “Coordination of Policies and Programs to Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women and Girls Globally.”  The memorandum directed the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs to establish an inter-agency working group to coordinate government-wide implementation of policies to promote gender equality and advance the status of women and girls internationally.

There has been some scholarly attention to the subject. Karen Garner chronicled the origins and development of the policy in the Clinton administration and analyzed the role of important political figures in the pursuit of gender equality.  More recently, Valerie Hudson and Patricia Leidl traced the evolution of the policy through the Obama years and offered critical analysis of its implementation.  Helen Laville reviewed critical perspectives on the role of women’s rights in American policy since 1945.

Nonetheless, questions remain about the priority that is placed on the pursuit of women’s rights in foreign policy.  Has declaratory policy actually led to increased policy activity?  In what policy areas?  Is the policy focused on specific countries or regions? Which presidents and secretaries of state have been most active in the pursuit of global gender equality, and on which policy problems do they focus?

In this and subsequent posts, we describe a new data set that documents the volume of policy activity announced by the bureaucratic organization that is most responsible for the pursuit of gender equality in US foreign policy: the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the US Department of State (OGWI –the name has varied over the years). In this first post, we provide a brief description of the procedures that we employed to collect the data and an overview of the number of policy actions in the years 1995-2015.  Subsequent posts will focus on the apparent priority placed on gender equality by different secretaries of state; the programmatic focus of policy; and the regional focus of policy actions. (A separate data collection on gender equality actions in USAID is underway)


Measuring Policy Activity

We define policy activity as any policy action that is publicly announced or otherwise reproduced on the OGWI website. These actions appear on the main webpage of the Office of Global Women’s Issues (on the “Releases” link on the left sidebar), which further links to the following two categories: “Remarks, Testimony” and “Other Releases.”  (A list of links for all actions since 1995 are reproduced in a Codebook that we will eventually distribute with project materials).

Within the two categories above, we counted any occurrence of the following types of actions: a government official speaking in public; all remarks, testimony, speeches, round table discussions, interviews, and public appearance; and all press releases, reports, fact sheets, newsletters, op-eds, legislation, and blog posts.

Two examples illustrate the sorts of “action” that we count.   In June of 2008, First Lady Laura Bush traveled to Afghanistan to meet with a variety of women’s groups and to announce several grants to support universities and literacy programs.  More recently, in March 2016 Secretary of State Kerry announced a $47 million initiative for a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.

We do not claim that this measure of the policy output of one office provides a comprehensive picture of the government’s commitment to women’s rights in foreign policy. That will require a fuller study of the budgetary resources and personnel that are committed to the policy, together with a qualitative assessment of the depth and persistence with which the policy is pursued. A full picture would also include a study of legislative actions, such as the Women’s Peace and Security Act, which is now making its way through both houses of the US Congress.

Nonetheless, the OGWI is the US government’s primary implementing office in the pursuit of global women’s rights, and we believe that a description of the volume of its policy activity and its programmatic and geographic priorities represents an important tool for tracing the evolution of an important foreign policy priority.


Overview: Total Policy Actions, 1995-2015

The graphic below displays the number of policy actions announced by the OGWI in each year since 1995.  Three features of the data stand out. First,  the priority of women’s rights in American foreign policy has indeed grown.  In the last two years of President Clinton’s first term, a total of 12 policy actions were announced.  In the last two years of President Obama’s first term, at least one policy action was announced every two to three days (151 actions in 2011).  Although there was a decline after 2012 in the volume of policy activity, in 2015 the number of actions was nonetheless higher than in any year prior to the Obama administration.










Second, there are two identifiable spurts in policy activity:  during the middle years of the Bush presidency (2002-2006) and most prominently during the first term of the Obama presidency (especially 2010-2012).  In the case of the former, the spike in activity occurs during the most intense years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In a future post, we will explore the extent to which policy activity was in fact focused on those two countries.  In the case of the increase during Obama’s first term, it is of course possible that policy activity was simply following the President’s own priorities, but that explanation falters in light of the substantial decline in activity that occurred after 2012. It therefore seems equally plausible that the peak of policy activity during the first Obama term was due to the personal interest and priorities of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had been the first honorary chair of the President’s Interagency Council on Women before giving her famous 1995 speech to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.  In a future post, we will explore the extent to which each Secretary of State was personally associated with the policy actions announced during their tenure.

Third, although policy activity does grow incrementally, there are also periods of decline, specifically at the end of the second Bush term and the end of the first Obama term.  In each case, the likely explanation is a pressing competing priority on the agenda of the Secretary of State (the Iraq surge under Secretary Condoleeza Rice and the negotiations with Israel, Palestinians, and Iran undertaken by Secretary of State Kerry).  Nonetheless, each decline is followed by a period of increase, which suggests that women’s rights have become an institutionalized priority in American foreign policy.


Technical Note

Because of the large spike in policy activity during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the political interest that surrounds her candidacy for president, we invested additional effort to double-check the accuracy of our data for the period of her tenure as Secretary and the period following her tenure.  The data through 2012 were originally collected by Coder 1.  To double-check her work, two additional coders replicated the data collection for the period 2009-2015.  For the period of overlap (2009-2012), the number of policy actions recorded by Coder 1 and Coder 3 were nearly identical, but Coder 2 counted fewer actions in two years (22 fewer in 2011 and 17 fewer in 2012).  For the period 2013-2015, Coders 2 and 3 were nearly identical in their counts.  We chose a conservative method for reconciling the two years of difference during 2011 and 2012 and all other years of overlap: we averaged the number of policy actions recorded by the three coders.  This method has the effect of slightly lowering the totals for these two years in particular.  For other years, as noted, the counts for all three coders are nearly identical so that averaging has little impact.



Do Women Dislike Drone Strikes More Than Other Types of Airstrikes?  (yes, but only a little)

February 27, 2015

Surveys in many countries show very large gender differences in approval of strikes by pilot less drones. For example, in June 2013, the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey asked the following question (click on any image to enlarge):



















Similar results occurred in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in Spring 2013; the average gender difference in support for drone strikes was 20 percentage points:



The consistency of this finding has led to speculation as to why women should be particularly negative about drone strikes and even to some disagreement as to whether gender is really a significant cleavage in public opinion on war and peace issues.  Insightful analysis here, here, and here.

A frequently cited explanation for the large gender difference on drones is that women are more sensitive to civilian casualties, and there is some evidence for this in American public opinion (as in this survey by Pew from February 2013). However, this same Pew survey of the US revealed that women are also more likely to cite other reasons for opposing drones, including concerns about their legality, their effect on the US image, and concerns about retaliation by “extremists.”

Thus, it may simply be that opposition to drones among women is part of a broader pattern of greater skepticism toward the use of military force.

An additional question is why drone strikes should evoke stronger gender difference than other types of air and missile attacks.  After all, press treatment of drone technologies emphasizes their technological sophistication and “last minute” target acquisition capabilities.  Surely citizens have gained the impression that collateral civilian damage from such strikes, while possible and even evident, may be less than conventional air strikes from fighter or high-flying bombers?  We know, for example, that the public reacted negatively to several instances of mistaken air attacks against civilian targets during the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Kosovo in 1999, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see the excellent Rand Corporation study of public reaction to these incidents by Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savychof  here).

In this post, I provide additional insight on these questions. The analysis draws on my study of gender difference in opinions of the use of force in as many as 37 countries from 1990 through 2004. Complete details on my definitions and other methodological issues are provided in this paper. Briefly summarized, I evaluate “support for using military force” by including any survey question that seeks a positive or negative opinion on “the potential or actual use of military force [past, present, or future]… including questions that actively (if sometimes hypothetically) query approval or disapproval of an action involving military force as a means of policy and also including questions that ask if the action is justified, appropriate, or the right thing to do.”

The dataset includes survey measures of support for using military force in six historical episodes: the Gulf War of 1991; the ensuing confrontation with Iraq over weapons inspections (1991-2002); NATO’s intervention in Bosnia (1992-1995); NATO’s attack against Serbia in support of the Kosovar Albanians (1998-1999); the US war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (2001-2004); and the war against Iraq and subsequent occupation (during 2003-2004).  The full dataset includes 612 survey measures of support for using force, drawn from 37 countries (for a separate analysis of American public opinion since 1984, see this paper). In the analysis below, survey questions about air or missile strikes were asked in 31 countries; most (but not all) of these occur in NATO member countries.

In this post, “gender difference” is the percentage of women who support the use of force minus the same percentage for men.

The first chart below shows that women are less supportive of any type of military action, but air and missile strikes are indeed the type of action that evokes the largest gender difference: women are less supportive by an average of 18 percentage points (note: the average for naval actions is based on only four survey questions).  Note also that the gender difference of 18 percentage points is identical to the average for drone strikes in the GMF survey shown above, and it is only slightly smaller than the average in the Pew survey from Spring 2013 (20 percentage points).


Gender Difference in support for military actions












The chart shown below indicates that air or missile strikes elicited larger gender differences in four of the six episodes in my study.  Although I do not show the results for individual countries here, gender difference on air or missile strikes is the largest for any military action in all but five countries (the exceptions are Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey).


Gender Difference in Support for Air or Missiles Strikes Compared to Other Military Actions Combined


 These results make clear that the large gender difference on the question of using drones is not unique: women dislike air and missile strikes (relative to men) by a margin that is at most only slightly lower than their dislike for drone strikes.  However, what these summary results do not tell us is why drone, air, and missile strikes should evoke such a large gender difference compared to other types of military actions.  As noted above, it may be that women are more sensitive to casualties, but the results here indicate that the issue is not casualties in the absolute: sending or increasing troops are actions that also risk casualties, but the gender difference for these actions is smaller.  It may be that air strikes and drone strikes risk higher civilian casualties (as the Pew surveys seem to find), which might imply that women are more likely than men to feel empathy or solidarity with civilians in target countries. Finally, it may be that the sudden, unexpected nature of air strikes evokes the greater sense of vulnerability to violence that women are known to experience relative to men (see this paper for an interesting discussion of this possibility). Which of these explanations is closest to the mark is something we cannot say on the basis of aggregate percentages such as those presented here, so a fuller understanding of gender difference must await additional research that explores these hypotheses in greater detail at the individual level.


Follow on Twitter:  @IkeEichenberg




No, the American Public Does Not Like Torture

December 10, 2014

With the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, I have already seen claims that, morality aside,  the American public accepts or indeed “likes” torture.

This is factually incorrect.

The assertion is sometimes based on a question that was frequently asked by the Pew Center for the People and the Press.  The text of the questions reads:

 Pew:  “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

From the standpoint of survey science, this question is problematic. Note that it offers 3 responses about how often torture  may be justified, but only 1 response that it is “never” justified.  The cards seem a bit stacked here (still: from 2004 to 2011, the average responses to this question were as follows:  46% often or sometimes justified; 50% rarely or never justified.)

The question has an additional flaw: it states as a premise that  torture can  “gain important information”.  But we know from the Senate’s report that this premise is debatable, to say the least.

The Pew Center does good work, but this question is not an example of it. More details on this question appear in my paper on the subject.

If we compare alternative survey question wordings on torture, the picture changes considerably.  For example, here are two questions asked by other survey organizations:


Gallup: “Would you be willing — or not willing — to have the U.S. government….Torture known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S?” (average of 2001 and 2005)

Not Willing   56%

Willing           41%


ABC/WP: “Would you regard the use of torture against people suspected of involvement in terrorism as an acceptable or unacceptable part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism?” (average of 2003 – 2005)

Acceptable         31%

Unacceptable    66%

Source for above here

If we go beyond these general questions to include very graphic questions about specific torture techniques that we now know were utilized,  we find not just rejection but revulsion.  See, for example, Table 3 in  this excellent article.

Who Likes Torture?

The following graphics provides an answer.  In 2009, following President Obama’s announcement of his executive order banning torture, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked the following. “Do you support this [Obama’s] position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?” (January 2009 – June 2009).

The responses are shown in the graphic below.  When Obama announced his torture ban in January, Republican men were the only group who opposed it.  This changed later when Vice President Cheney mobilized Republicans in defense of the practices of the Bush administration.

Percent who believe “there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects”

(that is,  they oppose the Obama ban on torture)   — click to enlarge




Source: ABC/Washington Post surveys (see Table 1 and Appendix 1 in this paper)



October Weekly Focus: Gender Difference in Four Crucial States

October 31, 2012


October Weekly Focus: Gender Difference in Four Crucial States

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson


(polls through October 28th)

Note: all percentages based on 2 party vote, dk’s excluded

(Update, 10/31:  Graphic corrected to show VA, not FL, in title)


Our previous posts have shown a very stable division of the gender vote for most of October both nationally and in the so-called swing states (based on polls through October 24th).  In this post, we update polls through October 28 for four crucial states: CO, OH, NH, and VA. We chose these states because of their obvious importance to the electoral college, but also because in at least three of them (CO, NH, and VA), there have been some signs in late October polling that Obama’s position may have improved slightly, and it is interesting to examine whether this improvement is due to the gender division of the vote.

There have been 69 polls in these four states during October, totalling over 58,000 respondents.  The average is 5,000 to 15,000 respondents per week. Still, even at these large sample sizes, we should treat any change in percentages of 2 percent or less with caution.  Sampling error and other statistical noise does not disappear, even at large sample sizes.

The graphic below shows the weekly average gender division of the vote in the four states combined.  The pattern is very familiar; after leading in September, Obama’s share of both the male and female vote declined in October, reaching a stable level of approximately 55 percent of women and 45 percent of men (one extra word of caution: this includes only 3 polls after Oct 28th).

Given sampling error and other noise, the best characterization is that these combined percentages have been largely unchanged since October 7th.

(click on image to enlarge)

State-by-State Summary

The number of polls for each state are relatively small on a weekly basis (monthly totals for each state are presented in other posts), so we do not show them graphically.

Nonetheless, a summary of the weekly progression of the polls in October is as follows:

CO:  Obama’s share of women’s votes in CO have been extremely stable at 54-55 percent since October 7th , with male vote stable at about 45-46%

NH  polls have been somewhat erratic. With that caveat, it is the only one of these four states that shows some signs of an increase in Obama’s share of the female vote: from 51-53 percent in the first half of October (which was a major drop from September) to 57-59 percent during the last two weeks of October (which approaches the 60 percent among women that Obama enjoyed in late September and the first week of October).

OH:  the gender race in Ohio has been rock solid stable at 56 percent Obama among women and 47 percent among men, with the overall Obama vote in Ohio between 51-52 percent since October 7.

VA:   There is a mixed pattern in VA, with the Obama female share fluctuating between 54 percent (Oct 27)  to as high as 58 percent (Oct 20), but the overall Obama vote in VA has been stable at 51 percent.

Summary Statistics for this Post

Number of polls and respondents by week (four state totals)

week               #polls    #respondents

Sept 30-Oct 6     6          6397

Oct 7-13          17        14980

Oct 14-20        13        11186

Oct 21-27        22        16512

Oct 28- Nov3     3          2192

Total    61        51267

Number of polls in October, by State

state     #polls   #respondents

CO       11         9876

NH       10          6228

OH       23        20106

VA       17        15057

Total    61        51267

Update in response to questions: polling organizations represented in this post

[number of polls and total respondents]

ANGUSREID         1    550
ARG                          6    3600
CNN/ORC                1    722
FOX                           2    2257
GRAVIS                   3    4111
GROVE                     2    1000
GarinHart                1    807
Gravis                        1    645
LAKE                          3    1400
NBC/WSJ/Marist   10    11407
NEWSMAXZOBGY    2    1674
PPP                               11    8624
PURP                             3    1800
QUINN/CBS                1    1548
QUINN/CBS/NYT    2    2542
SUFFOLK                     2    1100
SVYUSA                       3    2030
TIME                               1    783
UNH                                2    1318
WashPost                      1    1228
YOUGOV    3    2121

Total    61    51267



Gender Difference in 11 Key States

October 29, 2012

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University

(polls through October 24th)

In an earlier post,  we showed that the approximately two point drop in President Obama’s national poll standing from September to October was not due to a disproportionate decline among women.  In fact, he dropped by exactly two percentage points among both genders.

The question in this post is whether the same pattern characterizes his standing in eleven key states –what some have called “swing states”.

As we shall see, the answer is mixed:  Obama’s standing has on average declined slightly more among women in the key states, but the decline is actually concentrated in just a few states.  In other states, his support has held steady among women or even slightly increased.  And perhaps most importantly, even after these declines, Obama leads among women and overall in almost every swing state.

The Situation in Five Toss-up States

The five states below are currently listed as “toss ups” on most of the professional polling sites.  As the graphic shows, one reason for this is that Obama lost slight leads in all of these states as a result of a decline in his polling numbers in October.  On average, Obama lost -1.2 percent in these states and -2.9 percent among women.

(click on image to enlarge)

As the graphic also shows, however, these averages mask considerable variety.  In North Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire, Obama declined noticeably, while the decline in Colorado and Virginia was less (and may even be indistinguishable from sampling error and other statistical noise).

In summary, the picture provided by these toss-up states is one of diversity.  In three important states, Obama seems to have declined more among women than among men.  In other states, this was not the case.  Why each state takes the pattern that it does will have to be the subject of future research.


The Situation in Six States That Lean Obama

The situation is similarly diverse among states that most professional poll sites consider safe or leaning to Obama as of October 29.  In the graphic below, we show the level of support among men and women in these states for September and October.  Several patterns are evident.  First, in two states –Michigan and Wisconsin– Obama actually increased his lead among women from September to October (or held steady), one reason that he seems to be comfortably ahead in those states.

(click on image to enlarge)

In most of the rest of these states, Obama experienced small declines  of 2-3 percent among women, but in some cases these declines were offset by an increase in support among men (PA, NV). Third (and not shown in the graph), Obama is running ahead of his margin of 2008 victory among women in five important states: FL, IA, OH, MI, and VA. Finally, given the rash of speculation in the press about whether Obama has “lost” his advantage among women in the “swing states”, it is useful to point out that this graphic and the one shown above demonstrates that Obama is ahead among women in all of the 11 eleven states that most observers consider crucial to the outcome in the electoral college –sometimes by very large amounts in important states.


There are several caveats to the points made above.  First, many of the changes from September to October are small, averaging -3.0% in the first graph and -2.5% in the second (and in both graphs there are outliers that have a large affect on the average). Even with a large number of respondents for a pooled sample of surveys for each state and month, some margin of error remains (on the order of 1-2%; see sample sizes below). For this reason, it is probably useful to focus only on states where the change has been larger than 2% or so: FL, NH, IA, NV, and PA).  Second, it is worth noting that in many states,  the decline in Obama’s share of the vote occurs from a large cushion in September, and in some cases (PA) it may simply mean that vote shares are returning to their “normal” mean for that state.  Finally,  the polls reported in this post end on October 24th,  two days after the final presidential debate.  But many professional polls sites have shown a continuing improvement in Obama’s position after this date, and in particular an improvement in several states covered in this post (CO, VA, and possibly FL and NH in particular).  For this reason, our next post will report updated numbers for these four and perhaps two other states (OH and NC).

Number of polls and respondents for October (through Oct 24th)

state #polls #respondents

CO    9         8676
FL    16     13849
IA    7         5750
MI    1            895
NC    6          6395
NH    8         4854
NV    13    10378
OH    20    18058
PA    8          5914
VA    13    11777
WI    8         7099

Total    109    93645




















Gender Difference in National Polls: Has Obama Lost His Gender Advantage?

October 28, 2012

Gender Difference in National and State-Level Polling in the 2012 Election

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University


October 27, 2012

(polls reported in this post through Oct 24, 2012)


To say that gender is an important factor in the election is to state the obvious.  Beginning as early as last winter, policy debates and legislation affecting women have been a central theme of contention in the campaign, and of course the question of which candidate has an advantage among women voters has become a central preoccupation of poll watchers.

This is nothing new (see the scholarly references in the separate post at right).  There has been a noticeable, if variable, gender difference in presidential elections since at least 1992.  In 2012, however, the voting intentions of women have taken on added significance because of the salience of women’s issues and because the race in the Electoral College is so close.  As a result, each new poll showing a larger or smaller gender difference evokes a cycle of confusing discussion and speculation as to whether the historical “gender gap” has come to an end (for example: here , here, and here).

In this and other posts, we hope to clarify matters.

Technical Details About Our Data Collection

Please see our separate posting on the Technical Details that guided our data collection.  In addition, at the end of this post, you will find the total number of national polls included in our calculations for this post.

The Overall Standing of the Candidates in National Polls

It is useful to begin with the overall state of the national race, as shown in the graphic immediately below.  The figures will be familiar to poll watchers, revealing four phases in the presidential campaign.  First, during the primary season, characterized by fraternal attacks among Republicans, Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead of four to seven percentage points in polls testing his standing against Romney. After April, the race settled into a stable pattern in which Obama led Romney by a margin of 51/49 until September.  In September, Obama moved into the lead, fueled (we think) by the enthusiasm generated by the Democrats’ convention. In October, the situation reversed, a result (we think) of Obama’s dismal performance in the first Presidential debate on October 3rd.  As of October 24 in our database, the race is essentially tied.

For our purposes, the central question that arises from these trends is whether the shifts and turns during these phases of the horse race are the result of a gender difference.  More specifically, as many have speculated in the press and blog worlds, we might ask: did Obama lose his lead because of a decline in support among women?

Gender Difference in National Polling

The answer is no.

As the graphic below shows, Obama has led among women nationally in every month during 2012, averaging 56.7 percent among women for the entire year (with Romney obviously averaging 43.3 percent).

This gender difference among women for 2012 (Obama leading Romney by +13.1) is exactly the margin that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008.

Further, to the extent that Obama has a gender problem, it occurs among male voters. The two horizontal lines in the graphic display the percentage among women (top line) and men (bottom line) that Obama won in 2008.  As the lines make clear, he has fared worse among men this year than he did in 2008.  Specifically, Obama is averaging -3.8 percentage points among men for the year compared to 2008. Among women, it is a fairly trivial -.66 percent (55.6 percent in 2012 versus 57 percent in 2008).

Taken as whole, 2012 has been a year in which Obama has lost ground among men –not among women.

But that’s where the good news ends for Obama (to the extent that women provide the margin of victory for Democrats). In October, he lost ground among men and women by the same amount (2 percentage points compared to September). His standing of 46 percent among men and 54 percent among women is the lowest for any time during the year.  More worrisome for Obama supporters, the margin among women of +8 percent nationally  in October has dropped below the level that has provided victory for Democratic candidates in the past (Obama won with +13 points among women in 2008, compared to +11 for Gore in 2000 and +3 for Kerry in 2004). [update 10/30 in answer to reader question. Obama’s lead among RV’s only in October is 10.1%]

In summary, contrary to the speculation that accompanies one or the other poll released almost daily, Obama has a clear lead nationally among women as of October 24.  This lead is smaller than victorious Democratic candidates of the past, however.  And of course the crucial question is whether the same dynamic characterizes current polling in states that are crucial to the Electoral College outcome.

How is Obama faring in the crucial swing states?  What about Ohio? Or, as we shall see: Colorado and Virginia?

We address these questions in subsequent posts in this series.

Summary Statistics for National Polls Reported in this Post

Number of national polls per month

Jan       7

Feb      8

Mar      8

Apr      11

May     6

June     8

July      16

Aug      15

Sept     21

Oct       25

Total    125

Number of polls from following survey organizations (does not include daily tracking polls)

ABC/WP          3


ARG                4

CBS                 2

CBS/NYT        1

CNN/ORC       6

DK/PPP            11


FOX                 11

GRAVIS          1

IBBD/INV       2

MONM                        4

Marist/Mcc       2

PEW                10

POST/ABC      1

PPP                  6

QUINN                        4

YOUGOV        44

Total    125


Technical Documentation: Gender Difference in National and State-level Polling on Election 2012

October 28, 2012

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University

We have been following and recording gender difference in state and national polling during 2012 and provide a descriptive overview of the data here.

A few words on the contents of the database:  First, we track only polls for which the gender breakdown is available at no cost (this eliminates Rasmussen polls, to choose one example). Second, we track only polls for which the available cross tabulations are reported in a comprehensible fashion that facilitates rapid updating.  Finally, we have excluded national daily tracking polls because they would overwhelm the virtue of variety that comes from including a large number of different polling organizations (the Gallup and Rasmussen daily trackers are therefore excluded)  After the election has passed, we may add these tracking surveys back to the database for research purposes, perhaps choosing one reading per week. These exclusions have no effect on the state-level polls, as there are no state-level trackers –yet.

Does this introduce a “House Bias” into the data collection?

The excluded polling organizations mentioned above have produced results in 2012 that lean more pro-Romney than other organizations, although we have no way of knowing or assuming that this bias is more or less pronounced for gender differences in the polling results.  Nonetheless, their exclusion here might suggest that our collection is slightly more Obama-friendly than it would be were Rasmussen and Gallup (among others) included.

Partisans of both sides should be aware of that.

On the other hand, based on the sophisticated calculations performed by others, house bias is a smaller problem than one might expect when many polls with different drifts are averaged together, as we do here.  Based on the calculated “house bias” reported by Jackman and by Linzer,  our collection includes a number of polling organizations that lean pro-Obama by about 1 percentage point or slightly more, but it also includes organizations that lean slightly pro-Romney by about the same amount . Finally, the collection includes a large number of polls from organizations whose house bias is close to zero.

A fair guess –and it is only a guess—is that the average house bias in our collection leans only very slightly toward Obama, perhaps half a percentage point.  In fact, it may be less.  As we note below, we estimate the Obama/Romney percentage of the national electorate as of October 24th at exactly 50/50.  On this date, this is precisely the percentage estimated by the Huffpost’s pollster.com.  Also on this date, the NYT’s Nate Silver estimated a snapshot of the race at 50/49 (Obama/Romney).  In subsequent posts, we will also report the race in important states such as Colorado and Virginia at almost exactly 50/50 as of Oct 24th, which is also the precise number estimated by the professional poll aggregating sites.

Given how close our averages come to the averages yielded in professional model estimates, we have high confidence that our estimates are near the mark.  We will find out –and report– on election day.

Voter Base

The results reported here include likely voters and registered voters in survey samples.  We include registered voters because it allows us to extend the comparison back to January, when few polls had yet included likely voter screens.  As the year progresses, however, far and away the largest number of polls are based on likely voters only.  Specifically, for the entire year of 2012, 55 percent of our polls are Likely Voters.  After July, however, this increases to 84 percent Likely Voters, and it increases to 87 percent Likely Voters during October.

Polling Organizations Represented in the Database and Number of Polls for Each

ARG 21
FOX 19
Marist/Mcc 2
NBC/Marist 15
NBC/WSJ/Marist 38
NY1/YNN-Marist 2
PEW 10
PPP 120
STRAT360 1
UNH 10
WP 2
Total 557





Scholarly References on Gender Politics in the United States

October 28, 2012

Some of these references require access to electronic journals, usually through a University library.  Or you could do it the old-fashioned way, which is to walk into a university library or public library in a major city and read the article in the print journals section.

Chaney, Carole Kennedy, R. Michael Alvarez, and Jonathan Nagler. 1998. “Explaining the Gender Gap in US Presidential Elections, 1980-1992.” Political Research Quarterly, Vol 51, (June), 311-340.

Crowder-Meyer, Melody, “Gender Differences in Policy Preferences and Priorities,” Paper Presented to the Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2007.

Eichenberg, Richard, “Gender Differences in Attitudes Toward the Use of Force by the United States, 1990-2003” International Security, 28/1 (Summer 2003), 110-141.

Iversen, Torben and Frances Rosenbluth ,”The Political Economy of Gender: Explaining Cross-National Variation in the Gender Division of Labor and the Gender Voting Gap,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 50, No. 1, January 2006, Pp. 1–19.

Kaufman, Karen M., and John R. Petrocik. 1999. “The Changing Politics of American Men:  Understanding the Sources of the Gender Gap.” American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 43.  No. 3 (July). 864-887.

Shapiro, Robert and Harpreet Mahajan. 1986. “Gender Differences in Policy Preferences:  A Summary of Trends from the 1960s to the 1980s.” Public Opinion Quarterly. Vol. 50. No. 1 (Spring). 42-61.

Silver, Nate, “‘Gender Gap’ Near Historic Highs,” New York Times, October 21, 2012.

Wolbrecht, Christina, “Parties and the Gender Gap,”  in: Mischiefs of Faction, October 25, 2012.